Donald Trump Win Upends Conventional Wisdom

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally February 10, 2016 in Clemson, South Carolina.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s landslide win in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday writes a new chapter in the history of American presidential politics. The win also upsets a conventional wisdom that had settled over his campaign.

He won in a manner no one had expected and should force the commentariat to scrap what they think they know about the nomination contest.

Most pundits expected Trump to win New Hampshire, but by a smaller margin than polls suggested. This was partly based on the single data-point of the Iowa caucus, where Trump had underperformed his polling numbers. It was also based, though, on a lingering assumption that the Trump phenomenon would fade as actual voting commenced.

A team of political “insiders” assembled by Politico confidently predicted last July that Trump had already peaked. Up until New Hampshire actually voted, political bookie Nat Silver still confidently predicted that Trump would fall far short once voting began.

The Trump phenomenon, though, is only partly about Trump.

Exit polling on New Hampshire contained all the elements that were assumed to work against Trump. A smaller number of voters than in past Republican primaries were first time voters. The number of self-identified Independents voting in the GOP primary was lower than in the last election.

The number of voters who identified themselves as “very conservative” was also much higher than in either 2008 and 2012. The number of registered Republicans, as a share of the overall primary vote, was also higher than in the past.

Moreover, almost half the voters made their final decision in the days leading up to the primary. Around a quarter decided their final vote on election day, far higher than in either 2008 and 2012. Because Trump had led polling in the state by such a large margin, and for so long, suggested these late-deciders would break against him. They did not.

Another factor that ought to have worked against Trump, according to conventional wisdom, was that the issue he is most associated with, immigration, was only the fourth most important issue for voters. Just 15 percent of primary voters listed it as their most important issue.

To sum up, the electorate that voted Tuesday was, compared to past elections, more Republican, more conservative, less “Independent,” with fewer first-time voters. The voters also made their final decisions much later in the race than in years past.

According to conventional wisdom, each of these, on their own, would work against Trump. Taken together, they would suggest a much closer race than the polls had predicted. Instead, Trump not only beat his polling numbers, he achieved one of the biggest margins of victories ever in a crowded field.

The past is not always prologue in politics. As much as the commentariat likes to slice and dice the electorate into small bits of predictable behavior, this belies the fact that voters often fall into multiple categories at once. Just because a particular outcome was assembled in one state doesn’t mean the same equation will translate to another.

In Iowa, late-deciders massacred Trump. In New Hampshire they helped fuel his landslide victory. What the commentariat often misses when it micro-analyzes the electorate is that voters chiefly react to the overall narratives of a race.

Campaign tactics including ground games, turnout operations, retail campaign events and local endorsements are most effective when a race plays out on the margins, when all other things are equal between the candidates. In this primary, “all other things” are not equal.

There are four important overlooked facts that help explain Trump’s massive win and are likely to impact the nomination race going forward.

Trump won voters who disagree with him. From the beginning of the campaign, Donald Trump has been most associated with cracking down on illegal immigration. He has widely stated that his Administration would have the default position of deporting immigrants who were here illegally.

Yet, according to exit polling, 56 percent of Republican think believe illegal immigrants who are already here should be given a path to legalization. Only 40 percent support deporting those here illegally. Among the majority supporting a path to legalization, though, Trump won their support, just edging out Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The runner-up, Kasich, had openly campaigned on a path to legalization yet, even among the voters that agreed with him, he lost to Trump.

Republican voters are angry. Unsurprisingly, almost 90 percent of Republicans are disatissfied with the federal government. However, 40 percent are angry about it. Among these voters, Trump lapped the Republican field. He won support from 44 percent of these voters, almost 30 points more than his nearest rival among these voters, Ted Cruz.

Almost half of Republican voters say they feel “betrayed” by Republican leaders in Washington. That is a stunning number for an electorate that is not new to political involvement. Almost 85 percent of voters have voted in past Republican primaries. This is the hard base of the party, and half of them feel “betrayed.” Trump overwhelmingly won these voters, far ahead of Ted Cruz who was in second.

Republican party officials are clueless. About a week before the New Hampshire primary, the Washington Examiner’s Byron York published an article based on interviews with NH GOP leaders, all of whom expressed surprise by Trump’s strong standing in the polls. The leaders all told the reporter than they didn’t know personally know anyone who was supporting Trump. They were a bit flummoxed by the polling, because they didn’t “see” the support for Trump on the ground.

This article is a parable, and must reading for anyone seeking to understand how the Republican party hierarchy became so disconnected from its voters.

Trump “tells it like it is.” The top quality New Hampshire voters said they were looking for in a candidate was someone who “shares their values.” Among these voters, Trump got trounced, winning only 13 percent support. “Electability” was the least important factor for voters, but even in this Trump edged out Marco Rubio.

Although it wasn’t a top quality, a quarter of voters said they wanted a candidate who would “tell it like it is.” Among these voters, Trump received an eye-watering 65 percent support. It is a quality, really, that is unique to Trump. No other candidate comes close, but it was a quality most valued by a quarter of the electorate.

It is also a quality that only makes sense in a world where voters feel “betrayed” and their party leadership is so out of touch. Even when voters disagree with him, as they do in New Hampshire on the issue of deportation, he is still their chosen vessel to deliver a resounding message to the national Republican party.

Rival campaigns seeking to blunt Trump’s momentum heading into the next wave of states would do well to absorb these four points.

Other than Ted Cruz, all of Trump’s rivals in New Hampshire spent massive amounts of money competing for votes. Rubio, Kasich, Christie and Fiorina all spent hundreds of dollars for every vote they received. Jeb Bush topped the charts, spending $1,200 for every vote he received.

By contrast, Trump spent just $40 a vote and Ted Cruz, who surprised many by coming in third, spent the least, just $18 a vote.

Republican voter anger at its own leadership is far deeper than most people realize. That is the real phenomenon behind Trump’s rise.


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